Jackson County made a mess of assessments. Is there a property tax fix for next year?

SCLC joins fight with Westside property owners for assessment appeals deadline extension

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City and Westside neighborhood groups asked Jackson County to extend the property tax assessment appeals deadline to Sept. 1.
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The Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City and Westside neighborhood groups asked Jackson County to extend the property tax assessment appeals deadline to Sept. 1.

The 2019 reassessment cycle has been a debacle in Jackson County, one that demands the full attention of state legislators and voters.

More than 14,000 property taxpayers filed formal appeals of their assessments ahead of Tuesday’s deadline. An additional 21,700 asked for informal reviews earlier this summer.

The obvious lesson after a summer of discontent over property values and tax rates? Missouri lawmakers must offer a comprehensive package of tax reforms that voters can consider at the ballot box.

Finger-pointing and blame avoidance now must give way to real solutions that will make the system more fair, while taking the sting out of higher tax bills for some residents.

It won’t be easy. Decades of under-appraisals and political shenanigans have distorted the assessment process, ensuring some property owners will suffer. At least part of the cacophony surrounding this year’s process reflects the county’s attempt to rectify those errors overnight.

What looks like fairness to one homeowner seems like cheating to another.

And property values are just one part of the tax equation. Cities and school boards can and should roll back their tax levies as much as possible to soften the damage to taxpayers who’ve seen their values skyrocket.

But the goal remains the same: Property must be appraised evenly and equitably so that people in similar homes pay similar property taxes. At the same time, homeowners who have lived in the same place for decades should be protected from the rate shock that comes from urban renewal and gentrification.

With those goals in mind, here’s a framework for lawmakers to consider:

Do more frequent reappraisals. Missouri law now requires counties to reassess properties every other year; while that’s better than some states, it isn’t as effective as appraising properties annually.

Annual reappraisals would lessen sticker shock. They would be more expensive, so lawmakers should make sure counties have the resources to perform the work every 12 months.

There are more than 260,000 parcels in Jackson County.

Lawmakers should consider expanding “circuit breaker” protection for homeowners. Property tax bills should be capped for some homeowners based on income, age and length of time in the home — “means testing” for property tax increases.

“Circuit breakers help offset the unfairness of a regressive property tax by identifying the individual taxpayers for whom property taxes are most burdensome and reducing their tax to a manageable level,” says the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

No homeowner should lose his or her residence because of an exorbitant property tax bill.

Institute automatic appeals. Abnormally high reassessments should be automatically reviewed by a county’s board of equalization. Voluntary appeals would continue.

Deadlines should be reevaluated. Kansas City must set its tax rates by Oct. 1, just a few days after getting an estimate of property values from the county. If the City Council wants to roll back its levy more than required by law, it won’t have much time to do so.

Improve transparency. Missouri counties should make property values easily accessible on the internet, so taxpayers can compare appraisals. Checking those figures now is more complicated than it needs to be.

Property taxes are extraordinarily important to local governments, especially schools. But taxpayers seem to dislike property taxes more than any other levy, in part because they’re based on an educated guess.

Legislators should make paying property taxes fair and transparent. That may mean changing the state constitution next year.

Gov. Mike Parson and the legislature should make property taxation a major focus in the next session. Jackson County should not face another tax mess in 2021.